By Addie James and Jonah Jordan
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta when illegal abortions were commonplace — in a time before Roe v. Wade — affected how Aimee Lewis was raised. Yet, Lewis’ mother was a pro-choice Catholic who raised three daughters to believe in bodily autonomy.
“She never lost sight of the fact that we deserve to have the information about our own bodies, and we had a right to control our own bodies,” Lewis said. “That may be at odds with the Catholic faith I was raised with, but I believe she is right, and I’m proud of that example she set for me and my sisters that I’m now passing on to my daughters.”
Lewis is now fighting for the rights her mother instilled in her as the vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region.
Planned Parenthood has been providing reproductive health services, such as family planning, screenings or abortions, since 1921. The political climate in Washington, D.C., however, threatens the future of Planned Parenthood. If legislation to defund the organization in Congress were to pass, the organization would lose $500 million that helps operate 661 facilities nationwide, and it would hurt the 2.5 million women and men who rely on its resources.
Locally, Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region served 7,729 patients in 2016, with 4,058 cycles of contraception, 1,412 long-term contraceptives, such as IUDs, and 932 emergency contraption kits. Nationally, only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services included abortions in 2014, the latest statistics available. In Memphis, that number was 10 percent. The other, more common services include PAP smears, breast cancer screenings, contraceptive services, STI counseling, testing, treatment and free HIV counseling and testing.
With 67 percent of its patients in 2016 being black or African-American, the center also reaches a community that is historically underserved. The facility, located at Poplar and East Parkway, sits on several major bus routes and offers weekend hours to fit the needs of its patients.
“We are incredibly important for any community,” Lewis said. “Anyone of any socioeconomic status can come in here, and we can serve them. A lot of people tend to think of us as the resource for underserved communities, and we are definitely here for them. Health care access for them is so limited, and that is a very important part of our mission.”
Brittany Church, a board member at Memphis Area Women’s Council, agrees. “It amazes me that the vitality of women’s health clinics is not accepted as inherently good and logical in any city,” she said. “I imagine that if anyone were to question the validity of hospitals or doctors’ offices, they would be locked away in an asylum. I believe in a safe space where women can go to get the healthcare they need without judgement, criticism, or threat.”
Lewis said Southerners typically stigmatize abortion and reproductive health. To counteract that knowledge gap, Lewis’s organization emphasizes providing factual information to anyone so women can make an informed and healthy decision about their bodies.
Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region’s outreach extends to the University of Memphis.
“Planned Parenthood provides us with condoms for the whole year, and they actively seek us out to provide free HIV screenings every Friday each semester,” said Dr. Linh Liu, U of M Student Health Center’s health educator.
University of Memphis sophomore Kelsey Bowen, president of the University of Memphis’ Generation Action group, is also trying to correct some of the misinformation and apprehension regarding women’s reproductive health.
“Generation Action is a nationwide thing, so the general goal is to help people understand exactly what Planned Parenthood does, because it’s not just abortions — it’s birth control, information and sex education,” Bowen said.
Despite the benefits Planned Parenthood provides to the community, the organization faces funding threats from the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The law signed by President Barack Obama required birth control to be covered by private insurance companies for the first time, and it made getting care at reproductive health centers, including Planned Parenthood, easier and more affordable.
Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Lewis said would greatly affect Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid patients.
“If they cannot use their Medicaid, it would mean if they wanted to continue seeing the same provider that maybe they’ve been coming to for several years for their contraception and annual exams, they would not be able to choose that provider or they would have to pay out of pocket. It immediately creates a barrier for them,” Lewis said.
Another obstacle Lewis’ organization could face in the future is the defunding of Planned Parenthood on a federal level. Tennessee Congresswoman Diane Black (R) wants to divert Title X funds allocated to Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region since 1970 when President Nixon signed the bill into law. It was the first and only federal grant program to provide money for family planning services.
Black’s bill, which has 133 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, will restore funds to Planned Parenthood when all abortion services are banned. When a similar bill was passed in Texas, the infant mortality rate doubled. Memphis’ 2016 infant mortality rate is at a record low since hitting a record high of 15 baby deaths per 1,000 live births in 2003, according to the Shelby County Health Department.
“There are actual, real outcomes that affect real people when they don’t have access to services,” Lewis said. “Even if you disagree with abortion, or even if you disagree with contraception, you have to realize these public health outcomes.”
Planned Parenthood is here to stay, Lewis said. Fighting legislation is nothing new for them.
“Our doors will stay open, even in the face of Medicaid defunding,” Lewis said. “We aren’t going anywhere. We will do what we need to do to do to make sure our doors stay open and provide services to the patients who need us.”
Regardless of controversy, Planned Parenthood’s supporters have been constant. After the election of President Trump, Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region was flooded with donations, according to Lewis. Donations have come in at “40 times the normal rate” since the election of President Donald Trump’s election.
Following the inauguration of President Trump in January, millions worldwide protested the administration’s stance on civil rights issues, including women’s rights. Three million women participated in marches worldwide, including one in Memphis, to raise awareness for these issues.
Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen (D) attended the January Memphis Women’s March and compared it to the 1960s civil rights movement.
“I participated in the March in Memphis,” said Cohen, who skipped Trump’s inauguration to protest in Memphis. “We had about 9,000 people. I was very emotional because I hadn’t seen such a turnout since the civil rights days. People were very concerned and they want to express themselves, and they did it well here in Memphis.”